Earlier this month, President Trump signed the controversial FOSTA/SESTA bills into law. This new measure, which is ostensibly meant to combat sex trafficking, will make online platforms legally liable for what users say and do on their sites — with no differentiation between consensual sex work and trafficking.
The effects have been immediate, and overwhelmingly devastating to the sex worker community. Already, Craigslist has shut down its entire personals section, Reddit has closed several subreddits, like /r/Escorts and /r/Sugardaddy, and Backpage — the whole site — has been shuttered and seized by the feds. To anyone who’s actually listened to sex workers, the implications of this are a terrifying. With their sources of income vanishing at a rapid clip, many sex workers will be forced return to the streets, making them far less safe and more prone to being trafficked and exploited.
“I feel as if I’ve lost control over the one thing I had control over in my life,” says Melissa, a sex worker from Phoenix. Like many sex workers, Melissa had relied on Backpage: “I left [the streets] after six years of being with my physically abusive ex, who whipped me with extension cords, wire hangers, dragged me through glass by my hair numerous black eyes, fat lips, fucked-up face,” she says. “When I was with him, I was forced to hop in and out of cars on the track from sun up until sun down until he said I could stop. I’ve been beat over the head seven times with a wrench, shot, stabbed, kidnapped, raped… Now, because of this stupid bill, I’ve been forced to go back to the one place I barely made it out alive.”
For many sex workers, online forums like Backpage, Craigslist, and others functioned as a much safer alternative to street-based sex work. Posting ads online allows one to use screening methods, such as running background checks, checking references, and looking through “bad date lists” compiled by other sex workers to warn about hostile clients. Additionally, online forums come with a greater degree of client volume, which allows a sex worker to be pickier about whom she or he takes on as a client.
Because of FOSTA/SESTA, sex workers are now in an incredibly vulnerable position — something those who wish to exploit them are well aware of. “I’m getting an influx of pimps contacting me because they know that all this is affecting me,” says Lauren, a sex worker who lives in Jacksonville, Florida. “I can’t pay my bills or eat or take care of other little shit like I used to.” Melissa has had a similar experience. “Since this stupid bill, I’ve had at least 20 pimps contacting me telling me to come work for them because they can promise me clients,” she tells Broadly.
“I’m getting an influx of pimps contacting me because they know that all this is affecting me."
Anlina Sheng, a Winnipeg–based sex worker, says the closing of Backpage has already forced them to become less discerning with whom they see. “I find myself responding to inquiries I might have ignored before,” they explain. “I feel if I say no to an unpleasant client now, I might have to say yes to a dangerous or pushy client in the near future.”
What happens when we create a climate of desperation by driving sex workers even further underground? Will people be able to keep themselves safe? The answer, as sex workers have been saying this whole time, is clearly no.
Let’s cut the bullshit and just call FOSTA/SESTA what is really is: a war on consensual adult sex work. In myopically refusing to acknowledge that sex workers exist and that they deserve protection from violence, politicians are putting them in harm’s way. People make the best choices they can with the options they are given, and if given no alternatives, many sex workers have no choice but to turn to the streets.
Taking choice and autonomy away from those in the sex industry is not going to help trafficking victims. But by limiting options for those engaged in sex work, it will directly lead to violence and abuse. I myself am a homeless trafficking survivor, and I haven’t been helped at all by this bill. And as a survivor, I know that attempting to abolish the sex industry will not stop sex trafficking.
In truth, there is no simple answer to trafficking, which often occurs at the intersection of systemic, interlocking inequalities such as poverty, racism, sexism, and transphobia. Working towards racial justice is working towards the end of trafficking. Working towards gender justice is working to end trafficking. Working to end poverty and homelessness is working to end trafficking. Expanding social services and financial assistance and affordable housing for homeless survivors is working to end trafficking. Making sex work even more dangerous —and thus making sex workers more vulnerable to exploitation — is not.
“Make no mistake: These laws will cause many workers to go homeless, and it will have a body count,” says Jelena Vermilion, a sex worker based in Ontario. “Evil people are taking advantage of these changes, and the knowledge that we are more vulnerable than ever, to harm us. I think this law, practically, will protect fewer people than it harms.”
My experience as a survivor is that everyone thinks that they’re an expert on trafficking — and many of these self-proclaimed “experts” are far too willing to speak on behalf of survivors without realizing they’re actually speaking over us. Believe sex workers when they say FOSTA/SESTA will be deadly. And believe trafficking survivors when we say we don’t want to be used as justification for that body count.